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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Endgame

It says a lot about the state of contemporary pop culture that the biggest movie of the year is essentially a clip episode.

Pop culture has always been vaguely nostalgic, evoking an idealised past and reminding audiences of times when the future seemed brighter. After all, much of the New Hollywood canon is explicitly nostalgic, sixties and seventies films that pay loving homage to the thirties and the forties, often explicitly; The Sting, The Godfather, Paper Moon, Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde. The past has always had a certain allure for cinema, perhaps because that’s what pictures have always been; individual moments captured on film and frozen in time, removed from their original context. Film is simply those frozen images run together to create the illusion of movement and life. Every film is a time machine, some are just more explicit than others.

Assembly line.

However, there is something fascinating about the modern wave of nostalgia, the speed at which pop culture is consuming itself. Recent waves of seventies, eighties and nineties nostalgia are still cresting. Earlier this summer, Captain Marvel channeled some of this nineties nostalgia into blockbuster (and Blockbuster) form. However, it also feels like nostalgia is getting closer and closer to the present, brushing up against the current moment. In some respects, the success of Lady Bird is indicative here. After all, Lady Bird is a film that is explicitly nostalgic about the post-9/11 era, evoked through footage of the Iraq War and the sounds of Justin Timberlake playing at a teen house party.

Avengers: Endgame is a strangely nostalgic beast. It is not strange that the film is nostalgic; after all, this is something of a coda to a decade of superhero films. However, it is strange how that nostalgia brushes up against the present, the climax of the film feeling very much like a loving homage to Avengers: Infinity War, a film that only premiered one year ago.

Stark raving mad…

Endgame pitches itself as the end of a certain phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios has broken its development pipeline into various “phases” to mark its production cycles, but this is something different. Endgame positions itself as a passing of the metaphorical torch, an attempt by the company to cycle out a number of its veteran players while maintaining the sense of forward momentum. In some senses, it is the collision of the demands of a cinematic shared universe with the realities of an actor’s ambitions. Certain actors were unlikely to remain a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever. Even those who wanted to would eventually feel the ravages of time. Thor might be immortal, but Chris Hemsworth is not.

Endgame looks towards the past and the future. It bridges the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the film might take place without many of the next generation of heroes anchoring the shared universe, with characters like Peter Parker or T’Challa reduced to dust, but it does feature more than its fair share of recent arrivals in relatively prominent roles. The original cast of The Avengers gets a lot to do here, but so does Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel or Scott Lang from Ant Man or even Rocket and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy, with a strong supporting role given to Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok. This is a capstone on more than a decade’s-worth of films, but also a launching pad for decades to come. (One can feel those Disney+ shows clicking into place.)

However, its gaze is curiously and frustratingly nostalgic. The film is much more conventionally structured than Infinity War, which effectively positioned itself as a PG-rated Game of Thrones within the vast tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In contrast, and somewhat ironically, Endgame is a much more linear story. It has a clear three-act structure. Ironically, only the first of those acts seems focused on the future, dealing with the consequences of the finger-snap heard around the cosmos. “You gotta move on,” characters urge one another, suggesting that the best response to trauma is to pick one’s self up and push forward in spite of the pain. It is an heroic message, at the heart of films like Batman Begins or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The problem is that the remaining two thirds of the film not only fail to take that message on board, they instead double-down on rejecting it. The final two acts of Endgame are effectively gigantic clip shows. The second act features extended flashbacks to earlier films within the franchise, playing at best as a collection of deleted scenes from films that are five, six or seven years old. It is a strange choice, given that these films are all still in recent memory for both the protagonists and the audience. (They all unfold during the term of the last President of the United States.) Indeed, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a television show, as has frequently been argued, this would be a clip show assembled from episodes within the equivalent of the previous two seasons.

However, the most frustrating aspect of the film is the fact that the final act plays as an even stranger and more insular form of nostalgia. The climax of Endgame plays largely as a reiteration of the climax of Infinity War, just on a larger scale. Many of the characters overlap between the climaxes of Infinity War and Endgame, although some new ones are thrown in for good measure and the logistical ambition of the action sequence is scaled down. There’s something surreal in this. For Endgame, the pull of the past is so strong that it spends the better part of forty minutes constructing a loving ode to a film released roughly one year ago.

To be fair, Endgame was always going to be somewhat backwards-looking. The entire movie is designed as a sort of reset button. The entire premise of Endgame is not simply to balance the proverbial books for the trauma that Thanos inflicted on the universe in Infinity War, but to actively reverse it. Endgame is an exercise in nostalgia, a push back towards a more comfortable and familiar status quo. Anything can be undone. Any past can rewritten. Any lost soul can be resurrected. Any mistake can be erased. To be fair, this has always been the way within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has always had a surprisingly short-term memory, despite the pride that it seemed to take in its own internal continuity.

Thor ended with the breaking of the bifrost, separating the title character from the world of men and the love of his life. However, this status quo was conveniently ignored when The Avengers needed to get the God of Thunder to Earth. The script contains a throwaway reference to Odin using his power to get Thor to Earth, but the casualness with which Odin can send Thor to Earth and take Thor and Loki back to Asgard dramatically undercuts the ending of Thor. Similarly, Iron Man III ends with Tony blowing up all of his suits of armour and accepting that he is the Iron Man, only for Avengers: Age of Ultron to reveal that the character has built even more and even larger suits of armour to protect himself.

This has always been a strange paradox with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared universe which prides itself on its connectivity and intertextuality; the connections that exist between individual movies and tethering those movies to the source material. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the past has always more malleable than the idea of “canon” or “continuity” would allow. In Endgame, this is literalised. The characters in Endgame are allowed to not only visit the past, but also to reshape it and realign it, to rewrite it and to alter it in ways both large and small. The past is elastic, stretching in whatever direction the present needs it to go.

Old New York.

Where appropriate, previous films are ignored and overlooked; Iron Man II and The Incredible Hulk have largely been forgotten, their various sequel hooks and side characters brushed aside once they became inconvenient. Roles are recast when actors become difficult to work with, like Terrence Howard or Edward Norton. When Rhodey shows up in Iron Man II played by Don Cheadle, he offers a cheeky wink at the camera. “It’s me,” he states. “I’m here, get over it.” In Endgame, Cheadle gets to hang around with the original generation of the Avengers, as if he was always there, even though he might as well have been photoshopped in as awkwardly as on that Entertainment Weekly cover.

Comic books and comic book movies like to make a big deal of the past, to stress their internal continuity and to create the illusion that these are all parts of a single story that stretches backwards for decades. This is a convenient illusion. After all, so much of comic book history is erased and forgotten when convenient. Batman was originally a bloodthirsty killing machine. Captain America worked briefly as “Commie Smasher” during the McCarthy era. The past is only concrete when it suits. It is only useful relative to the present, when it can afford some weight to the perpetual present. Beyond that, the past can easily be revised and rewritten. In comic book language, they call these things “retcons.”

Comic books exist in a perpetual “now”, anchored in the permanent present. This phenomenon is known to fans as “comic book time.” It means that Peter Parker will always been a young adult, despite the fact that he has been in publication for over fifty years. Tony Stark’s accident always took place roughly ten years ago, which means that Stark has been wounded in both the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War. Because these characters are fictitious, they are not subject to the laws of nature. Age cannot wither them. It is fascinating. One of the most interesting aspects of comic books is watching these archetypes adapt to an ever-changing world while never moving along with it.

This is a challenge for a company like Marvel Studios. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (justifiably) takes pride in adapting various comic book tropes for the medium of film. Ant Man introduced the idea of legacy heroes. Civil War riffed on the concept of heroes fighting heroes. Ragnarok offered the collision of pop mythology and science-fiction trappings that had long been a staple of comic book storytelling. Although Infinity War might make the original seem quaint, The Avengers was a bombastic big-screen team-up. However, this sense of comic book time was always going to be a challenge for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because of the constraints of cinema. Characters live forever, but actors move on.

Alas, poor Tony, I hardly knew him.

Infinity War presented Thanos as a vaguely interesting figure; not for his radical environmentalist policies, but instead as a stand-in for all manner of existential forces working on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanos was the invisible author’s hand given big purple form, but he was also an avatar of concepts like death and destiny and time. At one point in Endgame, presiding over a wasteland, reflecting on how the heroes have failed to stop him yet again, he ruminates, “I am inevitable.” Thanos is those elements that cannot be controlled by Marvel or Disney, the hurdles that neither a blockbuster budget nor a creative writer can sidestep. At one point, Tony Stark ruminates that no amount of money can buy more time. Maybe he should check the box office receipts.

Endgame is fixated upon the concept of time, but without any meaningful understanding of it. Endgame has an abstract grasp on how time works. The opening hour of the film features a number of time leaps, pushing onwards from the ending of Infinity War. This is a shrewd decision in the opening hour, allowing Endgame some room to properly process the horror of what Thanos did. Indeed, if Infinity War positioned itself as a PG-rated Game of Thrones, then the opening hour of Endgame gestures towards The Leftovers. There are effective glimpses of a society struggling to recover from a horrific trauma; rubbish overflowing in abandoned streets, forsaken cars parked near an empty stadium, monuments to the lost, support groups set up for those left behind.

In these early minutes of Endgame, there is some sense of what it must be like to live in the shadow of such an event. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely been afraid of dealing with consequences and fallout, wary of acknowledging the implications of the actions taken by its heroes. This was the problem with Captain America: Civil War, a film that began with Tony Stark feeling sorry about the death of an unpowered teenager during a super-powered brawl, but which featured a climax in which Tony Stark recruited an untrained teenager into super-powered brawl. More to the point, Infinity War glossed over the traumas of Civil War, with Rhodey eagerly working alongside the people responsible for crippling him in Civil War, trading jokes and advice.

The best scene in Endgame is the very first one, just as the best scene in Infinity War is the very last one. A family is enjoying a quiet day together. There is nothing extraordinary about it. However, something horrific happens. In an instant, everything is lost. One moment, a loving husband and father is joking about putting mayonnaise on hotdogs, and in the next he is standing alone wondering where his life went. It is a raw and visceral moment, positioned even before the Marvel logo. As with the chaos that unfolded in the last post-credits scene of Infinity War, this opening scene seems to take place outside the world of gods and heroes occupied by figures like Captain America or Iron Man or Thor.

A little absent.

However, Endgame lacks the courage of its convictions. The film repeatedly hints at the destruction wrought by Thanos. Uncollected refuse piles up at the side of the road. A dead-eyed kid is asked to explain what has happened, and simply continues silently onwards. A small group of people in an empty room talk about their feelings and insecurities. However, much like Civil War was afraid to follow its ideas to their logical conclusions for fear of offending audience members seeking levity, Endgame never settles on a consistent tone. It is occasionally mournful and solemn, the characters meditating on what it means to be an “Avenger” in a world that has lost so much. However, it also wry and goofy and silly.

The Avengers failed to protect Earth from Thanos, which would seem to have been their one job. There is some sense that this is public knowledge; the name “Thanos” needs no explanation to people outside the superheroic community. The heroes themselves all seem to nurse a sense of guilt and responsibility for their failures. However, there is never a sense that anybody else holds them accountable. They continue to operate on a global scale without any supervision. There is an extended gag sequence early in the film where a bunch of adorable kids try to decide which Avenger they want a selfie with; it seems unlikely that these kids could have lived lives untouched by the disappearance of half the population, but they still treat the Avengers as heroes.

This is perhaps most obvious with the character of Thor. Odin died in Ragnarok, and Thor became King of Asgard. The realm was destroyed, and Thor became a shepherd for his people. He took on this responsibility reluctantly, but earnestly. However, in the opening moments of Infinity War, a significant portion of his people were murdered by Thanos. Presumably half of the survivors were killed at the climax of Infinity War. This is a harrowing experience, particularly for a person who has been placed in a position of authority and responsibility. Indeed, the most emotional moments of Infinity War came from Thor processing his sense of loss, and manifesting that into a death wish which he poorly disguised with humour.

Given all of this, Endgame might hope to develop Thor’s arc in that direction, to look on the tragedy of a man who never wanted to be king and whose short reign was disastrous for all involved. This is not how Endgame chooses to approach Thor. Instead, it puts the character in a fat suit and a bad wig, so that Stark can repeatedly refer to him as “Lebowski.” This is a version of Thor who yells at random kids playing Fortnite, threatening rip off their legs and shove those legs up certain parts of their anatomy. This is a version of Thor who watched his brother’s neck snapped right in front of him, shortly after putting in motion a plot that led to the death of his sister, but who blubs up during a presentation about his ex-girlfriend Jane.

Tone is one of the biggest issues with Endgame. When the characters begin to plan to reset the status quo, Nebula offers a harrowing story about the price that Vormir exacts to surrender the Soul Stone. Those who watched Infinity War will know that cost, but Nebula repeats it for new audience members. The Soul Stone demands the sacrifice of something truly personal and profound. In order to gain control of the Soul Stone, Thanos had to murder his daughter Gamora, throwing her from atop a mountain as a grotesque sacrifice. This tale is uncomfortable and unsettling, one of the most haunting moments in Infinity War. In Endgame, it is used to set up a punchline, as Rhodey chimes in at the end of Nebula’s story, “Not it.”

There is a sense that perhaps this is taking it all too seriously. After all, this is a comic book movie. It is meant to be goofy and silly. This is fair. Indeed, many of the best Marvel Studios films are propelled by that sense of fun and adventure – Thor and Thor: Ragnarok come to mind. The problem with Endgame is the same problem with Infinity War and with Civil War. This is a movie that asks to be taken seriously and earnestly, that presents itself as something worthy of engagement. Endgame never earns the level of emotional or intellectual engagement that it clearly wants, which hurts the film a great deal. Endgame takes itself too seriously to be goofy fun, and is too internally inconsistent to be taken seriously.

This dichotomy carries over to the film’s use of time. Endgame wants to use time for dramatic effect. After all, the entire premise of the film is that the audience has spent eleven years with these characters and so has a strong attachment to them. It also wants to underscore the effect of time on these characters by allowing the effects of the climax of Infinity War to linger. (That said, it might have been more effective to simply set Ant Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel in the gap between Infinity War and Endgame rather than treating them as prequels.) However, the gap often feels like a lazy shortcut in terms of characterisation.

This is most obvious with the Hulk. To be fair, Marvel Studios has never known quite what to do with the Hulk. The approach to the character has varied wildly almost scene-to-scene, in large part because the character does not have a single creative guiding force shepherding him. In Ragnarok, Bruce Banner worried that if he ever changed into the Hulk again, he would be lost forever. Then, in Infinity War, the Hulk hid inside Banner and refused to come out after being humiliated by Thanos. Finally, in Endgame, it seems like Banner and the Hulk have made peace, with Banner’s consciousness living inside the Hulk’s body. It is possible to construct a story from those beats, but there is no connective tissue present.

Pilot scheme.

The film never really explains why this is necessary or how this works. Given that the Hulk has his own personality, did Banner effectively labotomise his alter ego and is now riding around inside a giant green corpse? Given how strong the Hulk is, and how easy it is to cause property damage, isn’t Banner worried about accidentally breaking stuff just by walking around in that giant green form? More than that, what tangible advantage does Banner have in looking like the Hulk all the time? What does it accomplish? Thanos is long gone at this point. Okoye makes the point that there really isn’t too much unrelated Avenger-ing happening. What is the benefit here? Endgame never answers it, simply stating Banner did this after spending “eighteen months in a gamma lab.”

The problem is amplified when it comes to the inevitable time-travel plot in the second act. Again, the film’s influences seem to come primarily from television. There are shades of All Good Things…, the beloved series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, to the plot. The structure of the film – particularly nesting characters from the future inside previous adventures – also owes a lot to the work of Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, especially The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. However, there’s a weird dichotomy between how seriously Endgame wants the audience to think that it is taking this time travel nonsense and how seriously it is actually taking this time-travel nonsense.

Here, again, nostalgia is a powerful tool. The internal logic of Endgame seems strictly intertextual. Characters repeatedly frame their adventures in terms of pop culture, rather than approaching them as things that are actually happening within the confines of this narrative. When Rhodey and Nebula approach “the Tomb of the Power Stone”, Rhodey invokes the logic of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had previously been an unspoken influence on the tomb’s previous appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. When discussing time travel, the characters discuss it primarily in terms of films like Back to the Future and Back to the Future II, which conveniently contextualises how Endgame actually plans to use time travel as a narrative tool.

However, the film is overly earnest and self-serious given the extended plot references to Back to the Future II. Repeatedly, characters like the Hulk and Nebula assert that “that’s not how time travel works”, as if the film is actually concerned with advanced theoretical physics. More than that, the film’s weirdly convoluted internal time travel logic gets a number of really clumsy exposition dumps from characters who walk around with handy three-dimensional powerpoint presentations that they can deploy at will to assure our heroes – and the audience – that time travel is a big deal and so should be respected. There is a lot of earnest talk about doing damage to the timeline, often played for angst and stakes.

Adrift.

The only issue is that Endgame doesn’t actually care about any of this. The characters seem to be able to cause as much or as little damage to the timeline as necessary to justify various action sequences or fulfil character beats. The film insists that the objects that the heroes are stealing from history must be replaced to prevent the timeline from collapsing, but characters can meet their past selves or pull versions of other characters out of history without causing any real harm to the time stream. Again, time travel doesn’t exist, and so Endgame is free to invent whatever laws it wants. However, there is something strangely frustrating by how aggressively it asserts certain ideas only to ignore them whenever it is easiest.

Then again, this is the allure of the past to Endgame. The nostalgia within the film runs deep. At a crossroads for Marvel Studios, arriving at a time when the company is a dominant cultural force but trying to figure out how to maintain that dominance after a major transition, Endgame retreats into the comforts of the past. Endgame is populated with dozens of shots and allusions from previous films, even beyond what is strictly necessary for the point of the plot. Previous characters show up who have no real reason to be part of the plot, beyond flexing the company’s contractual muscle. There is a sense of a company recreating its own history not because it is a good idea, not because it has anything to say about that history, but simply because it can.

Endgame ultimately asserts that time doesn’t actually matter, perhaps its most significant misunderstanding of how the passage of time works. Repeatedly in Endgame, characters are plucked out of the time-stream from half a decade ago and drawn into the present as replacements or surrogates for their dead selves. These are major players, beloved characters, who have had significant journeys and important character development in those five years. It reveals a lot about how Endgame, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, views time that it assumes these characters are fundamentally the same and interchangeable. Is the version of Thanos from Guardians of the Galaxy the same as the one who lived through Infinity War? Endgame certainly thinks so.

There is a strong sense in which Endgame would happily retreat into its own idealised past, if it could. Tellingly, one character does just that at the climax of the film. The film sets up this late development with some awkward exposition in the opening act, but never actually bothers to articulate any internal motivation for the character’s choice. Why would that character go back now? Particularly given everything that is still to be done? Perhaps this is simply because the actor’s contract was coming to an end, but perhaps this is because Endgame doesn’t think that this sort of retreat into the comforts of the past needs any justification or explanation. Endgame assumes that everybody would choose to relive their own past if the opportunity presented itself.

Farmed and dangerous.

This yearning for the past is mirrored by a skepticism and contempt for the future. In many ways, Endgame positions itself as the antithesis of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, a film about the need to let go of the past and embrace the future. Endgame is a film about how scary the future is, and the need to hold on to the past. Repeatedly, characters in Endgame actively shirk any sense of obligation or responsibility to the future in favour of embracing the comforts of the past. This is particularly true of Thor, who spends most of the film griping about his failure to live up to the expectations of a ruler of Asgard, while failing to live up to the expectations of a ruler of Asgard.

Most films would tell Thor not to let himself be defeated, to learn from his failures and to try harder in future. This is the familiar rhythm of superhero stories. “Why do we fall?” asks Alfred in Batman Begins. “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” However, Endgame has a decidedly more cynical perspective on heroism. “We all fail at who we’re supposed to be,” one character advises Thor, telling him instead that he needs to learn to love who he is. In many ways, this is the moral heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that eschews any sense of personal growth in favour of self-satisfaction. Thor articulates the moral at the climax, “I am going to be who I am, not who I am supposed to be.” That is a unique definition of heroism.

However, that is increasingly how the morality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe operates. Much is made of the darkness suggested by films like Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it always seemed more an aesthetic judgment than a moral one. The heroic of many later Marvel Studios films consists of character failing, being warned to be careful, then ignoring that warning and carrying on anyway. This is the arc of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Age of Ultron and Civil War. There is a strong recurring sense in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that power is something that exists to be used and exploited, rather than something to be handled responsibly.

This was the issue with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel Studios film that came closest to dealing with these big political themes in an overt manner. The Winter Soldier was a story about the surveillance state and drone warfare, about the dangers of centralised power. On the surface, it appeared like a timely parable for the overreach of the Obama era. However, The Winter Soldier has the same awkward relationship to power as the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In The Winter Soldier, the problem is not the surveillance state, but the idea that such power might fall into the wrong hands. The Winter Soldier seems to legitimately argue that things would be better if Nick Fury never had to answer to anybody.

A Marvel-ous introduction,

Again, this is the pull of the fascistic impulse within the superhero narrative – the power fantasy at the heart of the genre that is perhaps rooted in broader cultural concerns. Of course, there are ways to combat this impulse; Into the Spider-Verse is more an empowerment fantasy than a power fantasy, while The Dark Knight follows these ideas through to their various end points. However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is rarely that self-aware. Instead, the films tend to embrace the power fantasy head-on. After all, so many of these characters are kings and gods; Thor of Asgard, T’Challa of Wakanda. Even Tony Stark was born to a kind of royalty, of class and wealth.

Endgame is never wary of power, simply wary of who wields it. The Infinity Stones are used repeatedly in Endgame, as often by the heroes as by the villains. There is never a sense that there are some tools too powerful to be wielded by mortals, too monstrous in scale to comprehend. Instead, Endgame argues that such power should only be judged by reference to who holds it. Our heroes would never be corrupted by power, would never use it unjustly or improperly, would never compromise themselves or betray their principles. Again, this is the logic of Captain America in Civil War, the man who unilaterally decided that a terrorist should be part of his superhero squad and that his best friend should not have to face justice for his crimes.

Indeed, this seems to be the logic behind Bruce Banner’s merger with the Hulk in Endgame. The logic is never articulated in the context of the film. As with that other character’s retreat into the past, the internal logic is taken for granted. Banner’s crisis of confidence and insecurity in the earlier films was not a result of that monstrous power pressing down on him, Endgame argues. Instead, Banner struggled because he was so reluctant to embrace and accept that power, to wield it like he was meant to. Endgame argues that Banner becomes a whole person when he takes the power offered by the Hulk rather than retreating from it. This is the logic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who would hesitate when offered power?

This theme runs through so much of Endgame. For all that a certain breed of superhero fan would argue that Batman vs. Superman is too violent or nihilistic, it is interesting to wonder whether they might say the same of Endgame. After all, this is a film in which Spider-Man earnestly commands his suit to “activate instant kill mode!”, and it obliges. The only difference between this and the casual lethality in Batman vs. Superman is the level of colour saturation running through so much of the film and that Batman vs. Superman was at least casually interesting in broaching the implications of this sort of power fantasy, even if they lead in grotesque directions.

In like Clint.

Endgame features a subplot that heavily focuses on Clint Barton, the Avenger known as Hawkeye. Armed with just a bow and arrow, Barton has always been something of an oddity in the Avengers mythos. However, Endgame allows Barton considerable screentime, focusing heavily on his lethality. Barton carves his way across the globe in Endgame, with Rhodey horrified at the carnage left in his wake; rooms full of murdered people who never had time to draw their weapons. These were criminals, but they were killed without due process or without trial. It initially appears that Barton has embraced nihilism, but it quickly becomes clear that he is instead imposing his own moral order on the universe.

His former colleagues know that he is doing this. His former colleagues are able – when it becomes advantageous for them – to track him down and confront him. However, none of Barton’s former colleagues question his actions. None of Barton’s former colleagues call out his violence, even the boy scout Steve Rogers. In some sense, it feels like this violence has made Barton more worthy of joining the Avengers, that his willingness to use his power to impose his will upon the world is something that makes him complete and whole. As with Banner, there is a sense in which Endgame sees Barton as embracing the power that he always held and using it in a meaningful way.

Much has been made of the militarism in Captain Marvel, but the truth is that this has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the very beginning, dating back to Iron Man. At the same, time, it feels taken well past its logical extreme in Endgame. Building off the end of Captain Marvel, Endgame repeatedly presents Carol Danvers as a living weapon. She repeatedly uses her powers to fly like a missile and to tear through enemy fortifications and ships. In Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s Invincible Iron Man, Tony Stark designs a suit for Pepper Potts that is explicitly non-military in design; it is purely defensive and responsive. It is a sign of how the character has grown since his time as a weapons manufacturer. Endgame could never imagine such a thing.

To be fair, this makes a certain amount of sense. So much of the modern superhero genre is informed and shaped by the politics of the War on Terror. Many of these films feel like a response to the horror of 9/11, in much the same way that so much popular Japanese cinema was a reaction to the horror of the atomic bomb. (This is perhaps most overt in Thor: The Dark World.) In particular, modern superhero hero stories often feel like an attempt to appropriate the horror of 9/11, to cast it as a heroic action. The Defenders features a climax in which the heroes must destroy a skyscraper to save Manhattan. In The Avengers, Tony flies a suicide mission over New York City to save the world.

Inevitably, Endgame also features its own weird and uncomfortable “heroic 9/11” moment, framed as a deliberate inversion of a key plot beat from Infinity War. There is something unsettling in this sequence, one of the most overtly emotional moments in Endgame, just as the scene that it mirrors was one of the most overtly emotional in Infinity War. The imagery and iconography is striking. The film is very overtly and very consciously playing on these long-simmering associations. Trauma is repurposed as heroism, horror becoming nobility. It is a striking moment, because it seems to understand the real magnitude of what what Endgame is attempting.

Endgame understands that the past is inescapable, but it can always be rewritten.

16 Responses

  1. Oof. I thought you were joking on Twitter when you mentioned a clip show. They really do that?

    • “Clip show” is a bit of an exaggeration. But – because we’re in the comments – a large part of the plot involves using time travel to revisit the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers and (for some reason) The Dark World. This mostly involves Back to the Future style messing about at the fringes, and bringing in actors from (and references to) other movies to crowd out the narrative. There’s a sequence of Rocket Raccoon CGI-ed in (obviously) to existing footage from The Dark World with Natalie Portman, who is very clearly done with these movies even if they aren’t done with her.

      None of which really helps either the narrative of Endgame itself or offers insight into the earlier films. It’s just there to be like, “Hey, look at these cool movies that you might have watched during your recent binge.”

  2. If it made you clutch your pearls, then it sounds like a great movie!

    • I don’t see any pearl-clutching. Just discussion of the film. But if this review made you imagine pearl-clutching, then it sounds like a great review!

      • I love angry Darren reviews.

      • Ha! I don’t think it was that angry! Just frustrated, really. So much potential, so many interesting ideas and we get… Thor in a fat suit, selfie jokes, stock footage Natalie Portman, and that ending.

      • Which scene was a “heroic 9/11 moment”?

      • The sequence in which Black Widow hurls herself to her death from a tall structure with two gigantic towers looming over it, in order to undo and reverse a massive cultural trauma.

  3. I just want to say having seen endgame That I fundementally disagree with your review and I also feel your little hard on the Marvel films in general. However that doesn’t make your analysis illegitimate or wrong, you simply have a differently opinion than I do. I simply didn’t see what you saw in the film

    The reason I’m saying this is twofold, first I’m not interested in getting into an argument with you and becoming one of those embarrasing jerks who shout at you on twitter. Second I genuinely believe you are one of the best critics on the internet. Your tv reviews in particular are masterful and there are people who’ve written whole books on shows like the X-files and Star Trek that don’t go into the detail that you do. I can’t wait for you to get done with voyager and get back to Next Generation. I also can’t wait for X-files season 11.

    I would also like once again make the suggestion that you tackle Buffy the Vampire Slayer next. I lot of the commentary online about that show I find really shallow and feel it needs your deep analytic dive.

    Anyway I just wanted to say basically lets agree to disagree and that anybody who gives you shit for your review is an asshole.

    P.S.

    I know you wrote a book on the X-files too and I have it, I just find your online reviews to be better.

    • No worries at all, David! It’d be boring if we all agreed all the time. I accept I’m in the minority on this one, and that’s fine. Honestly, it made a lot of people happy and that’s a good thing. (Trust me, I wish I loved it as much as anyone.)

  4. Darren do you think the MCU version of the Mutants will be either harder or easier to introduce in the Post-Endgame MCU?

    • I imagine easier. You now have multiple timelines, but you’ve also had cataclysms and universe-altering events. You can very easily write mutation as a jump-start on human evolution caused by any of these factors.

  5. Thor lost family
    His people
    His brother
    And everything else
    And still

    He smiles Love you Thor the best avenger

    • Yep. I’d be perfectly happy for Thor to go off and become a farmer or a surfer, to leave “that superhero life” behind him and move on.

      My issue is the film’s weird insistence that Thor deserves all of the power and none of the responsibility.

  6. agree to disagree, but still, great analysis. We are all entitled to our opinions. And this mostly feels like the movie is not for you. None of the movies from MCU really.

    • To be fair, plenty of the MCU movies are for me; the original Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, Iron Man III, even Black Panther and the original Avengers. All among the most satisfying blockbusters of the past decade. But, yeah, Infinity War and (particularly) Endgame didn’t work for me. Which is unfortunate.

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